Friday, May 06, 2022


Freedom of Speech

C.M. Bowra, The Greek Experience (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1957), pp. 76-77, with note on p. 204:
A third characteristic of Athenian democracy was freedom of speech. This was regarded as fundamental and interpreted in a generous manner. The Athenians had almost no laws of libel or slander, and their political debates were as candid and vituperative as their private and forensic quarrels. They seem to have welcomed a remarkable degree of outspokenness, and to have felt that it was part of the game to vilify one's opponents. In politics, of course, this had its dangers, when demagogues like Cleon and Hyperbolus carried the assembly of citizens with them by the crude violence of their words, and we can understand why they provoked answers in a like spirit, as when Andocides says of Hyperbolus: 'I am ashamed to mention the name of Hyperbolus; his father is a branded slave, who up to the present day works in the public mint; he himself is a foreigner, a barbarian, and a lampmaker.'28 More surprising is the unlimited licence allowed to comedy, which stuck at nothing in deriding public characters. Aristophanes makes unbridled fun of philosophers like Socrates, generals like Lamachus, politicians like Cleon, and poets like Euripides. This fun is reckless, scurrilous, and often ill-natured. His Socrates is a verminous charlatan, his Lamachus a preposterous fire-eater, his Cleon a violent and revengeful crook, his Euripides a conceited and touchy exhibitionist. In these caricatures there must be an element of truth, since otherwise they would fail to make their full effect. Aristophanes was not frightened by any influence or reputation and knew exactly where to plant a wound. No modern society, however democratic, would allow such licence, and it is a notable tribute to the self-assurance of the Athenians, that even in anxious times of war they were able to tolerate and enjoy it. It had of course the virtue that it was a safety-valve for emotions which might otherwise have taken more violent forms than mere words. Athenian democracy may sometimes have suffered from it, but the assumption that it was indispensable to a civilized community was in the main a source of strength. A people which can laugh at itself is well armed against many catastrophes.

28. Fr. 5 Blass.
The fragment from Andocides:
Περὶ Ὑπερβόλου λέγειν αἰσχύνομαι, οὗ ὁ μὲν πατὴρ ἐστιγμένος ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἐν τῷ ἀργυροκοπείῳ δουλεύει τῷ δημοσίῳ, αὐτὸς δὲ ξένος ὢν καὶ βάρβαρος λυχνοποιεῖ.

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